THE MILK DEBATE – WHICH MILK IS THE HEALTHIEST?
Got milk? Remember those adverts featuring a myriad of celebrities with a milk moustache? Designed to ooze cool, David Beckham to Beyonce and Elton John to Kate Moss pushed out the message that everybody drinks milk - even world leaders like former US President Bill Clinton and famous animated characters like Lisa and Bart Simpson.
But that successful ad campaign is no longer with us. Last year, the dairy industry recognised that it was losing the marketing battle and shelved it after 20 years. It now seems that cow’s milk is well, not so cool anymore.
Dairy milk consumption has been on the decline in both Europe and the United States in recent years. In America, it has dropped 25% from 1975 to 2012 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in the UK, the third-largest producer in the EU after Germany and France, consumption is now 8.1% lower that it was ten years ago according to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.
These days the uncontested winner is the non-diary market. Many of us seem to be switching from cow’s milk and opting for plant-based milk alternatives as we think of them as healthier. In the U.S., annual sales have soared to $1.4 billion and in the UK, the industry has grown 155% in just two years according market research firms.
“A lot of people are now embracing a plant-based diet because of all the research that’s coming out,” explained Helen Bond, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “Milk alternatives are part of that. Both the World Health Organisation and the World Cancer Research Fund are now pushing it.”
With increasing numbers of people now becoming more health conscious and knowledgeable about food, it’s no wonder there are so many alternatives to dairy milk on the market.
But is it possible to determine which option – whether soy, almond or organic cow’s milk - is the healthiest?
Experts say that’s a difficult question to answer.
“Health isn't as simple as that! You need to look at the needs of the consumer and their whole diet to give a balanced perspective on the "healthiness" of a food.”
Azmina Govindji, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
“I don’t think one is healthier than the other. There are so many factors that come into play that you can’t say one is the healthiest. It depends on you. It depends on your taste and on your health preferences.”
Helen Bond, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
“No food is healthy or unhealthy. But a diet can be healthy or unhealthy as a whole. Therefore, I would need to analyse diet, lifestyle, digestive tolerance and family history of diseases first before I can make a recommendation.”
Evelyn Dorkel, a registered dietitian at Nutrition for your Wellbeing in London.
“It is difficult to define ‘healthier’ as both milk and non-dairy alternative drinks can play a part in a healthy balanced diet. However, it is worth noting that non-dairy alternative drinks are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years for whom whole milk is recommended once they move from breast milk or formula.”
Dr. Rosalind Miller, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation.
With this in mind, here is a primer on the most popular options to help you determine which one is right for you:
Cow’s Milk – Organic?
Dairy milk is an important source of protein and calcium, containing many essential nutrients like iodine, B vitamins, potassium and phosphorous. “In young children, milk also contributes significantly to vitamin A and zinc intakes,” explained Dr. Miller.
Milk may protect against bowel cancer and heart diseases but “people who avoid dairy need to make sure they get enough of these two nutrients – calcium and iodine - to avoid a negative impact on bone and thyroid health,” said Evelyn Dorkel.
More and more people are conscious of the growth hormones and antibiotics found in dairy cows and now choose organic. An annual report by the Soil Association found that sales of organic milk in the UK increased by 6.5% in 2014.
But Dr. Miller indicated that “there is little significant difference between organic and conventional milk” in terms of quality, safety and nutrition in the UK.
That’s because there are “stringent European standards” ensuring that “the health and proper care of animals are top priorities for dairy farmers whether they produce organic or conventional milk.”
In the UK, the use of growth hormones in livestock is banned and antibiotics “have also been phased out” according to Defra.
“There is no evidence that organic milk is more nutritious,” said Helen Bond. “You just end up paying more and it is questionable whether it is any better.”
According to Azmina Govindji, the nutritional content of organic milk “all depends on the season, the farm, what the cows ate, etc.”
She pointed to a NHS study, which analysed 109 milk samples from 25 UK farms. It concluded “milk composition is affected by the farm production systems, which include the length of the grazing period and composition of the diet. These factors will affect potential nutritional qualities of the milk.”
But in the United States, Dr. Robert Medrek at the world-renowned D’Adamo Institute near Boston, is adamant. “Regardless of whatever you put in your body, it should always be organic,” he said. That includes milk.
This popular dairy alternative contains roughly the same amount of protein as cow’s milk but about half the saturated fat. Most brands on the market fortify it with calcium and vitamins. Unsweetened and unflavoured are better to avoid the added sugars and calories. It is also advisable to choose organic and limit your servings to one or two per day.
For many years, soy was the go-to milk alternative – the best substitute to cow’s milk for those who can’t digest lactose, the natural sugar found in milk and dairy products. But ever since soy was named as one of the top three genetically modified crops in the U.S., it has become a controversial food source.
Soya beans and in turn soy milk naturally contain phytoestrogen (isoflavone), a plant nutrient that acts like the hormone estrogen. Some have said this compound may disrupt the balance of hormones in the body but “considerably more evidence is needed to confirm this,” explained Dr. Miller.
There have been claims linking soy to increased risk of cancer. According to dietitian Evelyn Dorkel, “isoflavones actually protect against hormone-related cancer such as breast, endometrial and prostate cancer, but further research is needed to confirm this relationship.” Dr. Miller agreed. “Good quality research demonstrating such effects is limited.”
Concerns have also been raised over carrageenan, a gel-like fibre that is sometimes used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in milk alternatives like soy and almond. Some have said it can promote intestinal damage, inflammation, ulcers and even cancer.
But experts said there is no cause for alarm as these claims are “usually based on rodents’ studies with extremely high doses. Our metabolism differs from rodents in many ways. There is no scientific research that shows the same links in humans,” explained Dorkel.
This refreshing dairy-free alternative has replaced soy as the healthy plant-based milk of choice as it is seen as typically better. Sales of almond milk in both the U.S. and the UK are now climbing, even beating those of drinkable soy. With its rising popularity, almond milk, like soy, is a suitable option for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant, but it doesn’t have the same nutritional value as dairy milk.
The good news is that this nutty substitute has no saturated fat or cholesterol. It is also lower in calories than soy and dairy milk when it is unsweetened and unflavoured but the downside is that it’s also low in protein. In fact, it “gives you only half a gram of protein per 100ml,” said Azmina Govindji.
Almonds are naturally high in E vitamin, an antioxidant that protects cells against the damaging effects of free radicals, but almond milk, even though you decide to make it at home by soaking them in water, is not. One cup represents only 10% of your daily intake.
This non-dairy beverage is also naturally lower in a number of essential vitamins and minerals like B vitamins and calcium. Most commercials brands will add these missing nutrients that are naturally found in dairy milk, but “it is worth checking the label to ensure” what you buy “is both fortified and unsweetened,” said Dr. Miller.
By our online editor Chantal Ouimet